Bob Simpson and “Writing Across Boundaries”

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Guest-blogger Bob Simpson is Professor and Chair of the Board of Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and has participated in past Wenner-Gren symposia. Since 2007 he has been conducting a series of intensive two-day workshops aimed at honing the writing skills of social science PhD students, called “Writing Across Boundaries”.

In 2006, a call came out from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council for projects to support researcher development.  The call prompted Robin Humphrey and I to set about thinking about what was missing from current doctoral training in the UK.   It struck us that whilst there was extensive foundational training in methods and field preparation in place, little was being done about the return from the field and more specifically the business of writing ‘up’.  For many, the very idea of writing ‘up’ is a bit passé;  writing should take place at all stages of the research process.  We would not quibble with this basic assertion, but we both recalled those early stages of trying to write once fieldwork was completed and deadlines for completion began to loom.  This exercise in writing brought its own particular challenges.  How do I go about wringing text from that intimidating pile of notes, interviews, photographs, scribbled memoirs and so forth?  In fact, do I have anything to say at all that is worth saying?   Is my writing too simplistic, too prolix, where to start, where to stop?  Our reflections on this very important part of the process of becoming a fully fledged doctoral researcher resulted in a successful application for funds to run an annual, residential workshop for doctoral students who were using qualitative methods. The workshop had a simple aim: to help those attempting to write post-fieldwork by trying to figure out what the sticking points actually are.

The first of our Writing Across Boundaries [WAB] workshops took place in 2007 and was, according to the 40 participants who gave us extensive feedback, a great success.  Participative sessions on writing were delivered by anthropologists, sociologists, a psychologist (who was also a creative writer) and an educationalist.  Each dealt with different aspects of  ordering text; analysing the relationship between text and representation; rhetoric and narrative in qualitative writing; and the relationship between field data and theory.  Lectures and presentations were complemented by lots of participative and experiential exercises.

We have just completed our fifth workshop using more or less the same formula and again the response has been very gratifying.  It is as if the timing of the workshop [post-fieldwork – early stages of rendering it into doctoral standard text and image] coincides with what many doctoral students experience as a real pressure point in the process – the ‘scary gap’ as it came to be known.  By all accounts the workshops helped in managing this pressure by providing strategies to develop a clearer sense of voice in doctoral writing and also by helping students find the confidence to use this voice [turning the ‘scary gap’ into ‘a creative playground’ as one participant put it].  In this regard, the effectiveness of the workshops exceeded all our expectations.  Reflecting on why this is the case we have come to the conclusion that the content of the workshop was only a part of the story.  What came across from participants as by far the most important factor in strengthening their writing skills was the opportunity to mix with a group of fellow-travellers who, in the relaxed atmosphere of a residential workshop, could begin to explore the emotional and affective aspects of the writing process and how these related to the practical and processual aspects of writing.

One of the sessions that has been particularly engaging for social scientists is the one put on by the creative writer [who is also an academic psychologist].  The idea that the work involved in writing fiction, that is, thinking about character, motivation, narrative, context, collecting appropriate details etc would have anything to say to a social scientist faced with a mass of ‘qualitative’ data is an intriguing proposition.  But, it turns out that the challenges of communicating effective and convincing fictional narrative [selection, ordering, description, voice etc] are not dissimilar from the ones faced by a social scientist trying to do what all qualitative analysis and writing should be aspiring to which is the communication of others’ worlds and experiences.  For an ethnographer, a reflection on the similarities and differences is particularly illuminating.  Experimenting with the ways in which the rhetorical ‘charge’ of a piece of writing can change with subtle shifts in the use of voice, person and mood gave important insights into the ways in which texts provide a bridge to other people’s worlds.

The WAB initiative has been a great journey for both Robin and me.  The fact that we have been able to get the workshop recognised as Advanced Training delivered within the North East Doctoral Training Centre [NEDTC is a collaboration between Durham and Newcastle Universities], means that the future of the workshop is relatively safe.   Hopefully, for years to come, we will have the very great pleasure of working intensively with doctoral students from many different disciplines and operating at the leading edge of social science research. It will also enable us to continue developing the website which is turning into a cornucopia of contributions on all aspects of social science writing. Check it out!